Given that the economy is sour and that George W. Bush has made Republicans about as popular as polecats, John McCain remains very competitive in the presidential race against Barack Obama, at least according to public opinion polls.
There are various explanations for this, some sinister, some straightforward, but the one I would like to focus on today is this: John McCain is likable. I am not talking about his policies or his record; I am talking about him as a human being.
Of course, his record can't be completely separated from his personality. Still, being likable remains a formidable political asset. John Kerry would be president today if he had possessed that trait. (I voted for him, of course, but I also wrote at the time that you couldn't get a spark out of that guy if you attached jumper cables to his ears.)
On my vacation, I decided to read the autobiographies of the two candidates. I started off with John McCain's "Faith of My Fathers." This was written in conjunction with the help of an aide, Mark Salter, and the reader doesn't quite know how much is Salter and how much is McCain. I can only say that it rings consistently true to McCain's voice as we know it.
That is an appealing voice because it is so candid. He freely admits his own shortcomings in a way that is rather unusual and daring in American leaders (When was the last time George Bush ever suggested his did anything wrong?). I couldn't help thinking that if McCain were a Democrat, some Swift Boater would appear to use his words to slander him.
Of course, that would be totally unfair. Although he admits that he eventually broke under torture as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, it is also clear that he bore much more than most of us could bear in the same horrible circumstances. By any decent measure, his behavior was heroic, even if it wasn't perfect. His story is all the more believable because he does not shy away from describing his own midnight-of-the-soul moments.
The book is not a true biography. The first eight chapters describe the illustrious military careers of his grandfather and father, both of whom were admirals. With their exploits setting the stage, he doesn't start talking about his own life until Chapter 9. The story ends after his release from the POW camps. While his first wife is mentioned, there is nothing about his subsequent life with his second wife Cindy or his career in Congress.
What we have here is a half life revealed - the naval pilot who was heir to a great naval tradition. That faith of his fathers is not just religious but patriotic, the faith of warriors serving their country.
This is what used to be called a ripping yarn, harrowing at times but still exciting. I am not sure it tells us much about McCain the politician other than that his views owe a lot to the prevailing sentiments of World War II (one of his earliest memories is the attack on Pearl Harbor). But as I read the book, I thought: I like this guy. That doesn't mean I am going to vote for him. George Bush started off as a likable guy, too, and look where that got us.
After finishing the McCain book, I turned to Obama's "Dreams of My Father." I am not far enough into that to give a verdict. Stay tuned.